The Lenten season appears to be a golden opportunity that challenges us to think about ways we face AIDS and how we give answers to the question of meaning it raises. Fr. Jacquineau Azetsop


By  Fr Jacquineau Azetsop, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences, Gregorian University, Rome, Italy.

The Lenten season appears to be a golden opportunity that challenges us to think about ways we face AIDS and how we give answers to the question of meaning it raises

As we go through life, our journey in the wilderness, each of us makes decisions about how we orient our lives. We may want to move away from external comfort to seek for intrinsic rewards, because the pursuit of extrinsic rewards will not help us face the unavoidable question for the meaning of existence. The meaning of existence is connatural to human existence. The quest for meaning urges even more when human power has been put in crisis by natural disasters or a condition such as HIV and AIDS, cancer or another disease. In the case of HIV and AIDS, a small little intracellular virus underlines even more strongly the quest for meaning and questions the solidarity of African states with people affected and infected.

The Lenten season appears to be a golden opportunity that challenges us to think about ways we face AIDS and how we give answers to the question of meaning it raises. At the beginning of the Lenten season, Jesus told us that our spiritual practices should be in secret, that they should not draw attention to ourselves. If we pray to get noticed and to have people think well of us, if we fast or give alms so that others have a higher regard for us, then our true motivation is for superiority, for social status. Our piety then is hypocritical, play acting. Jesus recommends a fundamental spiritual disposition which is not about showing off but rather about intrinsic growth. Inner growth is then the way to go. The interior man needs to be nourished and fed. True spirituality, what strengthens our relationship with God, happens in secret, out of the public view. The benefit has to do with our inner transformation, not how others perceive us or treat us. Even when a person living with HIV is discriminated, he or she can draw from the inner strength wthat he or she has gained in secret to keep going. The same call to work for our inner growth is echoed by Prophet Joel: “rend your heart and not your garments.” Inner transformation is then what we are called to achieve as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus in the wilderness. It is with such an inner structuring of our being that we can face important challenges, including HIV infection, in our lives. The very same disposition may prompt expressions of charity and love to support people living with HIV or are affected by it.

In order to build our inner self in this time of lent while following him in the wilderness, Jesus prescribes three spiritual practices:  prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These practices aim at promoting our inner transformation, the change of our heart and mind.

The first spiritual practice is prayer. There are as many different ways to pray as there are people. Praying is first of all having a quality time with God, a time in which God is given the right place. Being the principle and foundation of our lives, the criteria for our existence are shaped by this relationship. So, the silence that shapes our face to face with God is foundational while the way we live out what we believe is revealing of a deeper truth that determines who we are and what we ought to become.

The silence that Jesus talks about is decisive, for it is marked by the weight of God’s almighty power and infinite love. What matters is not how we pray, but rather how we open up to God’s grace in prayer. We should not judge ourselves. We should not worry about how well we are praying or whether we are wasting our time.  Prayer will not change our hearts and minds overnight, but gradually a real transformation takes place, helping us feel closer to God and his creation. Prayer calls for self-transformation and social transformation, because welcoming God’s grace requires at the same time some work on oneself and actions aiming at transforming society. Thus, praying sets the stage for fasting and almsgiving.

Fasting is the second spiritual practice. Fasting usually means reducing the amount of food we eat. We may add reducing the possibility of designing a policy that suits the interests of the rich or the likelihood of entertaining negative ideas about oneself or others. The value in being a bit hungry or denying oneself is not simply to feel discomfort and annoyance. Rather, the discomfort can make us more grateful for how much we do have, how richly our lives are blessed or how best we can live in or positivize our present situation. A bit of hunger can help us experience empathy, to connect with those who don’t have enough to eat or to connect with those who feel constant pain and discomfort. Feeling a little bit of the experience of other human beings might help us become more compassionate.

Fasting can also be understood as a way of staying away from negativity, shying away from negative thoughts and embracing new perspectives. This approach to fasting is definitely important for those infected or affected by HIV. So, fasting alone, just like any act of self-denial, is not guaranteed to strengthen our relationship with God. Our self-denial can be ourselves, trying to prove how tough we are, or how holy we are, or it can be about vanity. The spiritual value of self-denial is to help us be grateful and empathetic. Self-denial can motivate us to live differently, to seek social justice and to identify with those in need. So, fasting can be assigned both a symbolic and mental value as well as a social justice value. This last meaning of fasting challenges Christian policymakers to move away from greed and self-centeredness to truly care for the poor and those suffer from AIDS. We can then raise important questions: what are the aims and first beneficiaries of social policy? Is the fight against AIDS still a development priority? How do African states treat people living with HIV? Is fasting carried out by policymakers disconnected from issues of social injustices or from the challenges faced by people living with HIV?

The third spiritual practice is almsgiving, better known as acts of mercy or charity. Jesus said don’t let your left hand know what the right is doing. In other words, when you help someone, don’t draw attention to yourself. Keep a low profile. Work behind the scenes. That’s the way God operates.

Serving and caring for others helps us understand and identify with other people. It also involves us in giving and receiving. We discover that in serving often we’re not only giving, but receiving. There’s mutuality, reciprocity, that dignifies us, makes us more like God and makes us feel more unity with other people, that we’re all in it together. 

But we live in the world where others are often denied existence. Luc Boltanski talks about the imperceptibility of the other which seems to be a characteristic of our global village, where the creation of new alterities are based on economic parameter or geographic distance. In such a context, charity can be very selective or, even, a means for further oppression. Almsgiving can be understood in a horizontal sense as the fact of giving to the neighbour, but it can be assigned a broader meaning, that of creating a social and global environment within which each individual can live a decent life.

As key practices of Christian spirituality, the praxis of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving not only simply aim at rendering each one of us individually holy, but also create a space for collective holiness. Hence, we can legitimately and rightly talk about social spirituality, because our spiritual journey with the spirit-empowered son of God in the wilderness will broaden our horizon and open us up to the needs of those of us who ought to benefit from social solidarity.

Lent is an opportunity to re-orient our lives to what is truly meaningful. It is a time to acknowledge our individual and social sins and short-comings, and the point of that is not to shame us or make us feel guilty, but to help us move through the shame and guilt, to accept ourselves and to feel God’s acceptance, to help us feel that we belong to God and are close to God.


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About AJAN

Jesuits across sub-Saharan Africa reach out daily to people affected by AIDS and seek to prevent the spread of HIV. The African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) coordinates their efforts, inspired by the vision: Empowered individuals, families, and communities working towards an HIV and AIDS free society and fullness of life (cfr John 10:10)